After weeks of intense media and political scrutiny, leaks and governmental infighting, Ofsted published their findings. What triggered this event was an error-riddled (and probable hoax) letter sent to Birmingham city council last year regarding an alleged “Islamist” takeover of schools. It had been passed around various government departments and West Midlands police before media leaks brought it into the public eye.
What it reveals is less about extremism but rather the overreaching hand of religious orthodoxy. Ofsted inspectors noted that school governors had “recently exerted inappropriate influence on policy and the day-to-day running” of schools as a culture of “fear and intimidation” grew.
At Oldknow Academy, the annual trip to Saudi Arabia discriminated against a minority of non-Muslim pupils (but there is an all-inclusive trip to Barcelona planned in 2014).
Inspectors from the Educational Funding Agency believed Park View went beyond its remit as an academy by taking the “Islamic focus too far.” Whilst it is true that a vast majority of pupils are Muslim, Park View is not a faith school, so it must, by law, conduct a daily act of collective worship that is of “Christian character.” It previously had permission to perform an Islamic form of collective worship but that expired last summer.
Other examples of religious orthodoxy included allegations of gender segregation (a charge rejected by Park View Educational Trust). Some restricted (or banned music) as others removed “un-Islamic” raffles and tombolas from a recent school fete. At another secular school, the call to prayer was broadcast over the school’s speakers in the playgrounds.
On the question of radicalisation and extremism, Michael Gove stated:
“Keeping our children safe – and ensuring our schools prepare them for life in modern Britain – could not be more important – it is my central mission.
Allegations made in what has become known as the Trojan Horse letter suggested children were not being kept safe in Birmingham schools.”
Gove overlooks Ofsted’s critique of Birmingham council for not “supporting a number of schools in their efforts to keep pupils safe from the potential risks of radicalisation and extremism”. There is a fundamental difference between general student safety and safety from the “potential risks” of extremism.
Another interesting facet of this entire scandal is how we now define extremism – the term is unhelpfully broad and politically loaded. An indefinable shadow that threatens to swallow the views we disagree with yet remain legal. It may soon swallow other views as we look to define what it means to be Muslim in contemporary Britain.
Ofsted’s own definition of extremism went undefined as some schools were criticised for failing to train staff in spotting the signs of radicalisation and for ignoring the Prevent Strategy, as some school leaders and governors were unaware of its existence.
Others were criticised for failing to “adopt effective strategies that develop pupils’ awareness of the risks of extremism or radicalisation.”
Nansen Primary School was criticised on child protection grounds since its website policy omits topics such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), homophobic bullying and the Prevent Strategy. Yet, to believe these issues are exclusively problems within Muslim communities is deeply myopic.
At Park View, Sheikh Shady al-Suleiman (who supports stoning for adulterers) was a guest speaker, but like many schools, there is no clear policy on vetting speakers, as it looks to develop pupils as individuals rather than promoting a single view.
In response, Park View Educational Trust states that extremism is a perversion from Islam and pupils are taught about its dangers. In 2012, the government-funded ‘Tapestry’ workshop spoke to Year 9 and 10 pupils. A day after Lee Rigby’s murder, a special assembly condemned the actions of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale.
The “Trojan horse” scandal may create a different sense of societal alienation if the intense scrutiny adversely affects future exam results and good educational standards. Placing five of the 21 schools in special measures may further educational disenfranchisement.
Many of the affected students are from poor ethnic minority backgrounds. At Park View, almost all pupils are non-white and eligibility for the pupil premium (those known to be eligible for free school meals, in the care of the local authority or with a parent or carer in the Armed Services) is well above the national average (72 per cent). Yet, 75 per cent of students achieved five A* to Cs at GCSE (including English and Maths) in 2013.
At Golden Hillock, the biggest minority groups are from Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, a very high proportion are eligible for the pupil premium, but just over 50 per cent achieved five A* to Cs at GCSE (including English and Maths) in 2013.
Whilst Nansen Primary School has a majority of pupils from Somali and Pakistani backgrounds, their eligibility for the pupil premium is also well above the national average, many need help just to get free school meals.
The pattern remains the same at Oldknow Academy where nearly all pupils are from various ethnic minority groups. Eligibility for the pupil premium is twice the national average.
Saltley School also has a higher proportion of ethnic minority pupils and eligibility for free school meals is disproportionately above the national average. Sweeping condemnation might also condemn these vulnerable students.
Michael Gove defines improvement along indefinable nationalistic virtues, which may only serve to divide along the simplistic binary of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ as the flip side of nationalism is always racism.
If skin colour and religious visibility made them targets for bigotry already, the very school uniforms they wear may create a new hostility, and that should worry us all.